Growing your own small and manageable fruit trees starts with well-planned bareroot planting.
In winter when the weather is cold and damp, dormant saplings can be dug from the soil and shipped to nurseries with their roots exposed. Once they arrive at the nursery, bareroot trees are often “heeled in” – buried in moist soil for protection.
Photo by Marion Brenner
Imagine a peach tree that’s the same height as you, an apple tree that doesn’t require a ladder for reaching the top-most fruit. In Grow a Little Fruit Tree (Storey, 2014), author Ann Ralph provides a timed pruning plan and simple maintenance guidelines for keeping ordinary fruit trees small and manageable. Little trees need less garden space, are easier to care for, and offer just the right amount of fruit for most households. The following excerpt is from Chapter 5, “The Fruit Tree Comes Home.”
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Grow a Little Fruit Tree.
Without question, bareroot is the best way to buy and plant fruit trees. Bareroot season offers a first critical lesson in timing. It presents several opportunities on a limited-time-only basis: the best possible price, the widest selection of varieties, the option to plant without added amendment around the roots, and, of critical importance — and thoroughly explained in chapter 6 — the opportunity to prune a young fruit tree properly from the outset. Young trees with unconfined roots establish readily and naturally into garden soil. For reasons of economy and availability, most nurseries bring in their full supply of fruit trees for the bareroot season. In most cases, the trees you find for sale later in the year are bareroot season leftovers.
Because their roots are exposed to air, bareroot stock requires immediate attention. The principle concern with bareroot trees is dehydration, especially a problem if winters are unseasonably warm or dry. Moisture in the air helps to keep roots and bark hydrated. A tree with moist bark more easily pushes new branches from latent buds.
It’s a good idea to soak bareroot plants that arrive by mail but counterproductive to soak them more than four to six hours. Follow the instructions of the supplier. Plants held in moist soil or sand at the nursery have hydrated roots and should not require soaking, but keep the roots damp and protected for the few hours between nursery and home until they get into the ground. Soaking is of little help if the trees don’t get planted in a timely fashion and their roots dry out.
Some bareroot trees come packaged in plastic bags with sawdust, an innovation that serves the nursery (or grocery or big box store) and not necessarily the plant. You get bigger and healthier root systems if you buy your fruit tree from a nursery or a reputable mail-order company — root systems that haven’t been pruned to accommodate a small, airless bag. As the season progresses and plants begin to grow, the dicier this packaging becomes.
Plant your new bareroot trees as soon as you can. If necessary, rearrange your schedule. Plan to plant a bareroot tree on the day you bring it home from the nursery or as soon as possible after you receive it by mail. Better to leave a bareroot plant in the nursery until you can get it planted than to risk dehydration if you can’t get it in the ground right away. In nurseries and at home, heeling in — covering roots with moist soil — buys time on the hydration front.
The window for buying and planting bareroot trees is necessarily brief. As long as deciduous trees aren’t actively growing, they can be held at the nursery until they are transplanted. The object is to get the young tree planted into its new location before too many tender young roots begin to grow in spring. At Scenic Nursery, depending on the weather each winter, Jim Rogers surveyed the progress of the plants. When the saplings leafed out and their roots got too far along, he made the annual pronouncement: bareroot season is over.
When we go shopping for plants, our human nature directs us to big plants, right now, to make up for the plant we wish we’d planted five years ago. It’s difficult to pass by a plant that looks impressive in the nursery in favor of its smaller and younger sibling. Bigger is better. Except that it isn’t. This bigger-is-better philosophy doesn’t serve us when we shop in a nursery. If you want healthy plants in the long run, let them acquire their size in the ground.
When you see plants in a nursery row, don’t pick the plant bursting from its container. Choose a smaller one. Buy a one-gallon plant rather than a five-gallon plant. Buy bareroot if you can, or a five-gallon tree rather than a tree in a box. All too often, large nursery plants are compromised by their containers. You’re better off choosing a small healthy plant than starting off with a big one, a tactic that also saves you money.
In the case of fruit trees, a thicker trunk suggests age, health, robustness, strength, a better value, and fruit earlier on. However, a thinner diameter — called the caliper of the tree — is actually a better choice. Ideally, the trunk of a young fruit tree measures about as big around as your thumb when you purchase it. When I bought fruit trees for Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, I specified five-eighth-inch calipers for this reason. Young, thin trees “break” buds — or start to grow — from a hard prune more readily than older, thicker trees do. Trees only one year older won’t take to a cut like this nearly as well.
Obviously, young fruit trees won’t look that different from one another once you chop them down to knee-high — no need to agonize about which one to pick. Trees usually develop cleaner scaffolds, or main supporting limbs, if you start from scratch with no branches below the knee-high prune. While I prefer a tree without low branching, if the tree available happens to have established branches below your knee-high cut, this low branching can develop into a nice scaffold, too.
Reputable nurseries and growers sell bareroot trees with established grafts and strong root systems. They won’t put them out for sale otherwise. One tree is pretty much as good as another. It won’t matter which you choose. Better nurseries also guarantee their plants. If you have concerns about root systems or grafts — or any other apprehensions — please, have that conversation before you leave the nursery. If you feel confident after a conversation with a salesperson, buy the tree. If not, consider this good rule of thumb for live plant shoppers: never leave the nursery with a plant you have qualms about. Even if the plant is fine or will be fine once it gets into the ground, fretting over a plant tends to undermine your efforts and your likelihood of success.
Fruit trees want your sunniest real estate. My Arctic Glo nectarine grows nestled between two crepe myrtles, the only place left in the yard to put it. When the crepe myrtles are pruned, the sun comes in, and I get good crops. When the larger trees fill back in, yield declines to a disappointing few.
Full sun means unobstructed sun from about eleven o’clock in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon. Full sun always includes noonday sun. Winter shade when trees are dormant doesn’t pose a problem. Before planting your tree, watch the spot and believe what you see. Gardeners too easily fall victim to wishful thinking. I consistently plant sun plants in a backyard area I wish were sunnier than it is. These plants just as consistently disappoint me. In short, plant fruit trees in full sun.
Fruit trees are not ideally situated in lawns. Lawn and trees are natural antagonists. Most rootstock balks at the every-other-day watering lawns on timed systems receive. (Incidentally, the lawns would prefer deeper and less frequent water, too.) If you must plant your fruit tree in a lawn, adjust to a longer and less frequent watering cycle. Or consider a persimmon, a tree that prefers regular watering and is as beautifully ornamental as it is fruitful. Check rootstock for water tolerance, especially in heavy soils. A peach, a plum, or an apricot grafted on Citation rootstock is more tolerant of irrigated gardens. Nurseries with a high percentage of customers with irrigated gardens often choose Citation as rootstock for their stone fruits. Citation rootstock requires regular water to thrive.
Apple trees tolerate lawn watering, but too much regular water gives apples and other fruit an undesirable watery quality. Cherry, apricot, and citrus trees are particularly vulnerable to heavy, soggy soils and the lawn-watering schedule. Avoid planting fruit trees at the bottom of a slope, near a downspout, or anyplace where water collects. Most of the time, fruit has better flavor and the trees are healthier if they are sited in locations where they can be watered deeply and less frequently.
At planting time, dig a wide, shallow hole deep enough in the center to comfortably accommodate the roots. Trim any broken roots and set the tree so it stands in the soil at a point about halfway between the top of the roots and the graft, the knob where the scion — the variety of your choosing — meets the rootstock.
To protect the graft from sunburn, position the outward curve of the graft so it faces south and the concave part of the grafting scar is protected from sun. Backfill the hole with native and unamended garden soil. Push the soil around the roots so it makes good contact.
You don’t need to be too fussy. You want the ground around the fruit tree roughly level with the surrounding soil. Planting a bareroot tree in a broad shallow hole helps eliminate a tendency to what Ed Laivo calls “the bucket effect” — a tree that settles too deep in the ground and sinks in the center of the hole. Planting bareroot gives a fruit tree its best start. Dig a hole that comfortably accommodates the roots and backfill with unamended native soil.
Tamp the soil down. Jiggle the tree to make sure it’s stable. Create a basin around the tree by building a four-inch berm to capture water and direct it toward the roots.
Water the tree once with about ten gallons of water to settle it into place. Bear in mind that the undeveloped root system isn’t yet actively growing. Once a new tree is watered in, seasonal rainfall usually provides adequate water through early spring.
If the weather is unseasonably dry at this stage, five gallons of water every couple of weeks should be plenty.
Excerpted from: Grow A Little Fruit Tree (c) Ann Ralph. Photography by (c)Marion Brenner. Illustration by (c)Allison Langton. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.
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